Moodle Administration

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By Alex Büchner
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  1. Introduction

About this book

Moodle has evolved from an academic project to the world's most popular virtual learning environment. During this evolution, its complexity has risen dramatically and so have the skills that are required to administer the system. While there is plenty of literature for Moodle course creators, there has been, with the exception of some disparate online resources, no Moodle administrator book. Until now!

This book is a complete, practical guide to administering Moodle sites. It covers how to set up Moodle in any learning environment, configuration and day-to-day admin tasks, as well as advanced options for customizing and extending Moodle.

Publication date:
September 2008
Publisher
Packt
Pages
376
ISBN
9781847195623

 

Chapter 1. Introduction

Welcome to Moodle Administration!

Moodle stands for Module Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment. We will begin with the principles of Moodle, followed by these introductory topics:

  • A very brief overview of Moodle

  • The Moodle model, covering development and business aspects of the software

  • An overview of sectors in which Moodle is used, and the types of users who are using Moodle

  • Job functions that have recently emerged in relation to VLE administration, their responsibilities, and the skill sets required

  • Some Moodle-specific administration tasks

 

Moodle's Rationale


Learning and teaching has been changing dramatically in the last decade. The shift from class-based environments to blended and online settings has been driven by the advent of new ubiquitous and internet-driven technologies such as cell phones, MP3 players, personal digital assistants, digital cameras, games consoles, interactive TV, and so on.

Marc Prensky has coined the terms digital natives (people who have grown up with these technologies) and digital immigrants (people who grew up without them and adapted them later). The problem that has arisen in educational settings is that the immigrants are often teaching the natives! This disconnection causes friction among all participants and now there is a need for technology to close this gap as much as possible.

A plethora of new assisting technologies has been introduced in recent years, which helps to supplement the existing learning and teaching environments. Examples are interactive whiteboards, classroom response/voting systems, rapid e-learning authoring tools, and virtual learning environments. Wikipedia defines a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) as follows:

A virtual learning environment is a software system designed to support teaching and learning in an educational setting. […] A VLE will normally work over the Internet and provide a collection of tools such as those for assessment (particularly of types that can be marked automatically, such as multiple choice), communication, uploading of content, return of students' work, peer assessment, administration of student groups, collecting and organizing student grades, questionnaires, tracking tools, etc.

The following diagram depicts the schematic components of a typical virtual learning environment:

The figure shows the main building blocks of VLE, each of which has its counterpart in non-virtual settings. The key to a good learning experience is good learning resources; the same applies in physical learning environments. Secure and flexible access is granted to learners, teachers, and administrators as well as to other users such as parents, inspectors, visitors, and so on. VLE can also be described as: "a content management system with an educational and pedagogical wrapper".

Moodle is one of the most popular virtual learning environments in this vastly growing market. First of all, let's provide you with a very brief overview of Moodle.

 

Moodle Overview


Moodle stands for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment.

The section about Moodle on its website www.moodle.org also defines to moodle [verb]:

The process of lazily meandering through something, doing things as it occurs to you to do them, an enjoyable tinkering that often leads to insight and creativity. As such it applies both to the way Moodle was developed, and to the way a student or teacher might approach studying or teaching an online course.

The original version of Moodle was developed by Martin Dougiamas as part of his research on social constructionist pedagogy or, for us mere mortals, learning by doing, communicating, and collaborating. If you wish to learn more about Moodle's underlying pedagogical framework, please refer to http://docs.moodle.org/en/Philosophy.

In a nutshell, Moodle is a web-based software system that facilitates learning and teaching. It is learning-centered and not tool-centered, which appeals to educationalists as well as learners. Moodle is now the most popular open-source virtual learning environment worldwide, and its uptake is growing steadily. Its modularity (remember, that's what the "M" stands for) allows us to configure the system flexibly and also to extend it if we wish to do so.

Before we cover Moodle in more detail, let's have a look at its unique development and business model.

 

The Moodle Model


Moodle is open-source software that has been released freely under the GNU Public License. This means that you are allowed to copy, use, and modify Moodle, provided that you agree to: provide the source to others; not modify or remove the original license and copyrights, and apply this same license to any derivative work.

However, the name Moodle is copyrighted which means only authorized companies are allowed to sell related services.

The questions frequently asked are:

  • How is Moodle being developed?

  • How does Moodle make money?

Let us shed some light on these two valid questions. At the core is the Moodle Trust, set up by Martin Dougiamas, that manages the Moodle project.

The Moodle Development Model

The Moodle Trust employs a number of full-time software developers who are implementing and co-ordinating the development of the software. Programmers around the globe contribute to the development. Some are core developers; some contribute through testing, while others offer small-scale patches and amendments. While some are paid by employers who benefit from Moodle such as universities or companies, others are volunteers who are enthusiastic about Moodle, or programming, or both.

A roadmap exists for Moodle, which is driven by feature requests from the Moodle community. These are users who either post requirements on tracker.moodle.org or who provide feedback at Moodle conferences called MoodleMoots. Some features are paid for (see Business Model section), for example, Microsoft part-financed the development of the XMLDB database abstraction layer.

The Moodle Business Model

The Moodle trust has three main revenue-generating channels:

  • Moodle Partners (www.moodle.com)

    Moodle Partners are companies that have been authorized by the Moodle Trust to carry out Moodle services (such as hosting, support, training, branding, development, and so on) in a particular territory, and use the Moodle trademark. It is similar to a franchise model, where each franchisee pays an annual fee and a commission on its revenue to the franchiser. There are approximately 40 Moodle partners world-wide, which displays the highest professional standards.

  • Clients

    Institutions, companies, and individuals contract the Moodle Trust to implement functionality to its product. Most of these new features will then be made available to the community.

  • Donations

    Many Moodle users including businesses, educational establishments, and individuals have funded the Moodle project through donations.

The two main expenses of the Moodle Trust are staff salaries and the maintenance of its community site www.moodle.org, which includes free forum-based support, full documentation, a bug tracking facility, and many more features.

If you want to deepen your knowledge on development and business models of open-source software, The Cathedral & the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond is a must-read. For more information on the Moodle model, search for Moodle: a case study in sustainability by Martin Dougiamas who is Moodle's benevolent dictator.

 

Moodle Usage


Like so many technologies related to teaching and learning, most VLEs, including Moodle, were initially tailored towards the needs and requirements of academia. While the core educational sector is still the largest consumer in the market, other verticals are now making use of Moodle. This has been reflected in the provision of a more flexible functionality. The main groups of users can be categorized in the following four sectors:

  1. Core education

    Here core education means state-funded or private schools, colleges, academies, polytechnics, universities, and so on. Basically, any organization where learning and teaching (and optionally research and technology transfer) is at its core and qualifications in academic and vocational subjects are being offered.

    VLEs are crucial to these organizations whether they are used to supplement face-to-face learning in a blended environment or if a pure e-learning approach is taken. There exist very few core educational organizations today that do not have a VLE.

  2. Industry

    There are two types of organizations in this group: The first type includes companies that specialize in delivering courses across industry sectors. This ranges from micro-businesses providing training in a niche sector such as helicopter maintenance (we have a Moodle customer who does exactly that!) to large corporations offering hundreds of courses (for example, languages, IT, and business subjects) to individuals and other companies. The second type involves businesses that use VLEs internally for their staff training.

    In both cases VLEs play a crucial role as they reduce cost, increase flexibility, and cater for a multitude of learning styles, pace, and methodologies.

  3. Public sector

    More and more public sector organizations are using VLEs for a range of activities. Examples are continual professional development, dissemination of information, and citizen consultation. Special role play bodies that are responsible for organizations in the core educational sector such as education boards, qualifications and curriculum authorities, skills councils, and so on. In addition to using VLEs internally, they often act as an intermediary between policy makers and these individual organizations.

  4. Not-for-profit organizations

    NPOs, voluntary organizations, and charities utilize VLEs to disseminate information, provide support to its service users, and offer self-help courses among other activities.

Independent of the sector in which VLEs are deployed, there are three main types of Moodle users:

  1. Learners

    These are the most important users of Moodle! They are the consumers in any learning environment, whether it is physical or virtual. Depending on their status, they might be called pupils, students, participants, staff members, and so on.

    In addition to providing learning resources (text, audio, video, animation, simulation, and so on), good VLEs support a wide range of learning activities as well as collaboration and communication facilities for its learners.

  2. Teachers

    These are the producers in a learning environment. There are two key roles: creation of learning content and the delivery thereof. Again, depending on the organization, you might call them teachers, lecturers, instructors, staff, trainers, coaches, and so on.

  3. Administrators

    That's us! We are the ones who have to make sure that everything is working the way it is supposed to. Learners have to be given access to their courses or classes, and teachers have to be given facilities they need to carry out their duties. In addition to these key tasks, there is a plethora of responsibilities that have to be carried out. We will provide an overview in this introduction before we go into the details on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

There are additional types of users who will be able to access your Moodle system. Examples are external examiners, inspectors, parents, visitors, alumni, librarians, and so on. We will come across those user types later on while dealing with roles in Moodle.

 

VLE Administration


A Moodle administrator is basically a VLE administrator who manages a Moodle system. We first look at the job functions, responsibilities, and necessary skill sets in general before understanding any Moodle-specific duties.

VLE Job Functions

A quick search through recruitment agencies specializing in the educational sector reveal a growing number of dedicated job titles that are closely related to VLE administration. A few examples are:

  • VLE Administrator (or LMS Administrator or MLE Administrator)

  • VLE Support Officer

  • VLE Architect

  • VLE Engineer

  • VLE Coordinator

The list does not include functions that regularly act in an administrative capacity such as IT support. It also does not include roles that are situated in the pedagogical field, but often take on the work of a VLE administrator such as learning technologists or e-learning coordinators.

A VLE administrator usually works very closely with the staff who have responsibility for the administration of IT systems, databases and networks. It has proven beneficial to have some basic skills in these areas. Additionally, links are likely in larger organizations where content management systems, student information management systems, and other related infrastructure is present.

Given this growing number of VLE administration-related roles, let us look at some key obligations of the job function and what skills are essential and desirable.

Obligations and Skill Sets of a VLE Administrator

The responsibilities of the VLE administrator differ from organization to organization. However, there are some obligations that are common across installations and setups:

  • User management (learners, teachers, and others)

  • Course management (prospectus mapping)

  • Module management (functionality provided to users)

  • Look and feel of the VLE (sometimes carried out by a web designer)

  • Year-end maintenance (if applicable)

  • Beginning-of-year setup (if applicable)

  • Support teaching staff and learners

In addition to these VLE-specific features, you are required to make sure that the virtual learning environment is secure, stable, and performs well. Backups have to be in place, monitoring has to be set up, reports about usage have to be produced, and regular system maintenance has to be carried out.

If you host your own system, you will be responsible for all of the listed tasks and many more. If your VLE is hosted in a managed environment, some of the tasks closer to system level will be carried out by the hosting provider. So it is important that they have a good understanding of Moodle. Either way, you will be the first person to be contacted by staff and learners if anything goes wrong, if they require new functionality, or if some administrative task has to be carried out.

While a range of e-learning related activities are now taught as part of some academic and vocational qualifications (for instance, instructional design or e-moderation), VLE administration per se is not. Most VLE administrators have a technical background and often have some system or database administration knowledge. Again, it entirely depends on whether you host your VLE locally or it is hosted externally. The administration skills of a remotely hosted system can be learned by anybody with some technical knowledge. However, for an internally hosted system you will require good working knowledge of the operating system on which the VLE is installed, the underlying database that is used, the network in which the VLE has to operate, and any further components that have to work with the learning system.

 

Moodle Administration


Moodle administration essentially covers all the aspects mentioned in previous sections. But since Moodle is very open, flexible, and modular, it provides some additional layers of functionality that other systems lack. These extra options sometimes require further tasks to be carried out. Some examples are:

  • Integration with other systems holding information about your learners and course participation (for example via LDAP).

  • Installation of third-party add-ons: There are well over 350 non-core modules that can be installed and which will then have to be looked after.

  • Networking: Moodle provides a unique feature to network Moodle systems across the Internet.

  • Integration with ever more popular e-portfolio systems, for instance Mahara.

  • Moodle can be skinned via themes. To create themes you need to have good HTML and CSS knowledge.

It is not necessary to have any programming skills to administer Moodle. However, if you wish to change any of the functionalities of VLE, it is necessary that you know PHP, the programming language in which Moodle has been developed. It is further recommended to be familiar with HTML and CSS. However, we won't cover any programming aspects of Moodle in this book.

Along with the tasks that have been mentioned in this introduction, some more will also be covered in great detail in this book.

 

Summary


Moodle is a VLE that is innovative and flexible. It is able to cater to the needs of modern online learners. In this chapter we have provided a brief overview of Moodle per se as well as its development and business model, before describing the sectors in which Moodle is employed and the types of users that are using it.

Administering Moodle is not a straightforward task, which is why more and more organizations have dedicated resources to manage their learning environment. The first task of a Moodle administrator is to install the software, which we will go through step-by-step in the next chapter.

About the Author

  • Alex Büchner

    Alex Büchner is the co-founder and technical director of the Platinum Totara, Moodle, and Mahara partner, Synergy Learning. He has been involved in system and database administration for more than two decades and has been administering virtual learning environments of all shapes and sizes since their advent on the educational landscape.

    Alex holds a PhD in computer science and an MSc in software engineering. He has authored over 50 international publications, including two books, and is a frequent speaker on Totara, Moodle, Mahara, and related open source technologies. His first two books on Moodle Administration by Packt Publishing have become the de facto standard on the topic.

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